When TSR Passed On Tolkien

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When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Angel Tarragon » Thu Sep 12, 2019 8:16 pm

This was posted on enworld.org,but I am sure we have plenty of people that come to our forums that don't check on the other forum [frequently].
Benjamin RIggs recently revealed this tidbit of TSR history -- Lorraine Williams passing on the rights to Tolkien's works in 1992!

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"So, in 1992, TSR almost acquired the rights to JRR Tolkien's work. John Rateliff was sent to London to negotiate the deal, missing Gen Con. (Apparently, no TSR employees were allowed to miss Gen Con, but he was for this...) He met Christopher Tolkien at the Harper-Collins offices, where he asked for the rights to make RPGs, merch, and new books set in Middle-Earth. Chris Tolkien said yes to the RPGs, and some merch, but no to the fiction line.

Back in Lake Geneva, Rateliff communicated this to TSR CEO Lorraine Williams. Rateliff said, "Her immortal words were, ‘Not worth our while.’”

She then passed on the whole deal."
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Havard » Thu Sep 12, 2019 9:50 pm

Source?

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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Big Mac » Thu Sep 12, 2019 11:26 pm

Havard wrote:
Thu Sep 12, 2019 9:50 pm
Source?
Looks like this post on Benjamin Riggs's Facebook page is the source and ENWorld have reposted it here (and added a picture).

Morrus also added that John Ratcliff wrote this book: The History of the Hobbit: The Hobbit / Mr. Baggins / Return to Bag-end. So he is obviously an expert on Tolkien. Presumably that helped him win a RPG deal for TSR (that they then turned down).

James Lowder replied and said this:
Lorraine was dead set on TSR publishing original fiction, both prequels and sequels, to the LotRs. Given the success of the book department at the time, the company saw this generating endless piles of cash. Inside the book department we saw the financial potential, but thought it was a bad idea. TSR was already frowned upon as a publisher of fiction by significant parts of the genre publishing market, both the establishment and some readers. This could only makes things worse.
James Ward said this:
James M. Ward on Facebook wrote:You forgot to include the fact that John was then the editor of the redesign of the hobbit, making him perfect for the job. I think history is filled with examples that Lorraine was an idiot.
Ryan Scott Dancey said something interesting:
Ryan Scott Dancey on Facebook wrote:It's hard to know what those rights would have been worth in 1992 or if TSR could have done anything of quality with them if they had them.

An RPG-only license would have been competing directly with Iron Crown's MERP and that would have generated a lot of fizz in the community (MERP was beloved, if small in comparison to D&D). TSR had enormous image problems already and it would absolutely have been positioned as "bullying" Iron Crown by the community.

Remember that this was before the movies when the Lord of the Rings franchise was much diminished. Magic: The Gathering hit the following year and so just as TSR would have been ramping up the line they'd have been whacked with the tsunami of the CCG explosion.

TSR did not, in general, excel with 3rd party IP. They didn't get much traction with their Lankhmar product line. Multiple attempts with Buck Rogers came to little benefit. If we lived in an alternate reality where they went ahead with this deal, I would not have been shocked if TSR's Middle-earth line did about as well as their Buck Rodgers line - or worse.

And then just think about the authors. Imagine a world where TSR got the rights to make new Middle-earth novels. TSR had some very good writers working for them but none of those people were really prepared to try and write a Middle-earth novel that would not be excoriated by fans. Remember the outcry that met the "sequel" to Gone With the Wind? That would pale in comparison. Rateliff was qualified of course but he would have been the only person on staff likely able to pull it off purely from the technical level of correctly using the various dialects and naming conventions and John wasn't a New York Times Bestselling author.

Who was TSR going to assign to that project? Of their top-tier authors, who would want to take on that reputational risk? (Maybe R.a. Salvatore. Bob has very thick skin and likes a challenge and frankly I'd love to read a Salvatore story in Middle-earth.) Still, that's a huge lift. And they didn't want "a novel", they wanted to do the TSR thing and have a serialized novel line with new books coming out two or three or four times a year so either they took an A-lister off whatever they were already writing successfully or they tried to recruit a new talent or they went with a non A-lister. Scylla, meet Charybdis.

I speak from some direct experience here. Before Fellowship of the Ring reached theaters my team did a lot of due diligence on trying to make a license work. We just couldn't figure out how to make the numbers make sense. Given that Star Wars D20, in the heat of Episode I's release, didn't do as well as D&D, I seriously doubt that Middle-earth would have either and that license was even more of a straightjacket than the Star Wars deal. A direct license from the Tolkien estate would have been less restrictive of course, but the stories I've heard about dealing with the Estate are hair-curling. The contract might say we (or TSR) had the right to do a thing, but that family is OBSESSED with their idea of how to manage the legacy of Tolkien's work and life. A stall, or endless litigation was not unpossible.
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Big Mac » Fri Sep 13, 2019 6:38 am

I wonder what TSR might have done with Middle-earth.

Not to disparage Conan and Lankhmar (as they are interesting settings) but did TSR put out as much of a product line as they could have? When you look at what Sovereign Press/Margaret Weiss did with Dragonlance and what White Wolf/Sword & Sorcery Studio did with Ravenloft, you can see that it is possible for a company with a licence to put out a significant number of products.

Conan and Lanhkmar were from an earlier era, but have other companies (of that sort of era) published more Conan and Lankhmar products than TSR?

I know that other companies, with Middle-earth licences, seem to have put out more products than either Conan or Lankhmar got from TSR. I don't think TSR could have diverted all of it's staff from making it's in-house settings to ramp up production on Middle-earth.

I don't think that Wizards of the Coast have done too much better. They didn't do much with Diablo II and World of Time. They cancelled their Warcraft book and farmed out the D&D licence for Warcraft to White Wolf.

Having said that, Star Wars did get good support. I wonder if that was because WotC had more confidence in Star Wars than it's own d20 Modern campaign settings. :?
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by night_druid » Fri Sep 13, 2019 12:34 pm

I'm on the side of "wow, Lorraine did the right thing". Business-wise, no, but from the prospect that TSR had never really handled third-party licenses well. Given their track record, they'd half-ass it. :(

I do think they could put out great products, but mostly for their own stuff. I've rarely seen them put in the effort for a 3rd party book.
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by GMWestermeyer » Fri Sep 13, 2019 2:05 pm

Big Mac wrote:
Thu Sep 12, 2019 11:26 pm
Morrus also added that John Ratcliff wrote this book: The History of the Hobbit: The Hobbit / Mr. Baggins / Return to Bag-end. So he is obviously an expert on Tolkien. Presumably that helped him win a RPG deal for TSR (that they then turned down).

Ugh. Watching fans and former TSR staff butcher the knowledge of Tolkien and Tolkien scholars is painful.

Rateliff is easily in the top 3 Tolkien scholars ever, the only person other then Christopher Tolkien himself to produce a 'History of' work on Tolkien.

Personally, I'm glad the RPG didn't happen. They would have butchered it, most likely.

Talking about new fiction is just silly, that was NEVER going to happen as long as Christopher Tolkien was in charge of the Estate, thank god.

But seeing this moronic comment:
Ryan Scott Dancey on Facebook wrote: I speak from some direct experience here. Before Fellowship of the Ring reached theaters my team did a lot of due diligence on trying to make a license work. We just couldn't figure out how to make the numbers make sense. Given that Star Wars D20, in the heat of Episode I's release, didn't do as well as D&D, I seriously doubt that Middle-earth would have either and that license was even more of a straightjacket than the Star Wars deal. A direct license from the Tolkien estate would have been less restrictive of course, but the stories I've heard about dealing with the Estate are hair-curling. The contract might say we (or TSR) had the right to do a thing, but that family is OBSESSED with their idea of how to manage the legacy of Tolkien's work and life. A stall, or endless litigation was not unpossible.
Just highlights that RPG companies should be kept as far from Middle earth as possible.

Gee, Tolkien's family wants to protect his creation from you bloody hacks... how dare they...

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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Havard » Fri Sep 13, 2019 3:10 pm

GMWestermeyer wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 2:05 pm
But seeing this moronic comment:
Ryan Scott Dancey on Facebook wrote: I speak from some direct experience here. Before Fellowship of the Ring reached theaters my team did a lot of due diligence on trying to make a license work. We just couldn't figure out how to make the numbers make sense. Given that Star Wars D20, in the heat of Episode I's release, didn't do as well as D&D, I seriously doubt that Middle-earth would have either and that license was even more of a straightjacket than the Star Wars deal. A direct license from the Tolkien estate would have been less restrictive of course, but the stories I've heard about dealing with the Estate are hair-curling. The contract might say we (or TSR) had the right to do a thing, but that family is OBSESSED with their idea of how to manage the legacy of Tolkien's work and life. A stall, or endless litigation was not unpossible.
Just highlights that RPG companies should be kept as far from Middle earth as possible.

Gee, Tolkien's family wants to protect his creation from you bloody hacks... how dare they...
I see what you mean.

I think TIME is important here. 1992 would have been a great time for TSR to publish a Middle-earth RPG or setting for AD&D. This was long before the decline of TSR had begun and may even have been the key to postpone the inevitable decline, with the Middle-earth IP being useful to have as more and more people were drawn to White Wolf Games, MtG, Video Games etc instead of spending their money on TSR stuff later in the 1990s.

It is interesting to hear Ryan Dancey write about the restrictions of the Star Wars IP. West End Games' President Scott Palter told me of a very different experience with the Star Wars IP when that company had their lisencing agreement with Lucasarts in the 80s and 90s. The Prequels surely changed the stance of the company, wanting WotC to promote the movies instead of focusing on the older stuff. I don't know how restrictive the Tolkien Estate would have been regarding a Middle-earth lisence to TSR in 1992, but I would guess looking at the deal given to ICE over MERP products would give us a clue?

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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by The Dark » Fri Sep 13, 2019 11:21 pm

GMWestermeyer wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 2:05 pm
But seeing this moronic comment:
Ryan Scott Dancey on Facebook wrote: I speak from some direct experience here. Before Fellowship of the Ring reached theaters my team did a lot of due diligence on trying to make a license work. We just couldn't figure out how to make the numbers make sense. Given that Star Wars D20, in the heat of Episode I's release, didn't do as well as D&D, I seriously doubt that Middle-earth would have either and that license was even more of a straightjacket than the Star Wars deal. A direct license from the Tolkien estate would have been less restrictive of course, but the stories I've heard about dealing with the Estate are hair-curling. The contract might say we (or TSR) had the right to do a thing, but that family is OBSESSED with their idea of how to manage the legacy of Tolkien's work and life. A stall, or endless litigation was not unpossible.
Just highlights that RPG companies should be kept as far from Middle earth as possible.

Gee, Tolkien's family wants to protect his creation from you bloody hacks... how dare they...
Ironically, talking to the Estate about licensing an RPG is probably the worst thing someone could do if they wanted to make a commercially successful RPG. Only MERP was licensed from the Tolkien Estate, and that's likely why it avoided the timeframe of LotR and The Hobbit, because the Estate doesn't hold licensing rights to those books. Tolkien himself sold the rights to those two books to United Artists in 1969, who sold them to Saul Zaentz in 1976, the same year the Estate was formed. Decipher's game was licensed from Zaentz (via New Line), while The One Ring is licensed directly from Zaentz. GW's miniatures game is also licensed from Zaentz. Anyone licensing from the Estate is in for a rude shock when they realize they only have rights to the Silmarillion and posthumous fragments.

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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by The Dark » Fri Sep 13, 2019 11:30 pm

Havard wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 3:10 pm
GMWestermeyer wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 2:05 pm
But seeing this moronic comment:
Ryan Scott Dancey on Facebook wrote: I speak from some direct experience here. Before Fellowship of the Ring reached theaters my team did a lot of due diligence on trying to make a license work. We just couldn't figure out how to make the numbers make sense. Given that Star Wars D20, in the heat of Episode I's release, didn't do as well as D&D, I seriously doubt that Middle-earth would have either and that license was even more of a straightjacket than the Star Wars deal. A direct license from the Tolkien estate would have been less restrictive of course, but the stories I've heard about dealing with the Estate are hair-curling. The contract might say we (or TSR) had the right to do a thing, but that family is OBSESSED with their idea of how to manage the legacy of Tolkien's work and life. A stall, or endless litigation was not unpossible.
Just highlights that RPG companies should be kept as far from Middle earth as possible.

Gee, Tolkien's family wants to protect his creation from you bloody hacks... how dare they...
I see what you mean.

I think TIME is important here. 1992 would have been a great time for TSR to publish a Middle-earth RPG or setting for AD&D. This was long before the decline of TSR had begun and may even have been the key to postpone the inevitable decline, with the Middle-earth IP being useful to have as more and more people were drawn to White Wolf Games, MtG, Video Games etc instead of spending their money on TSR stuff later in the 1990s.

It is interesting to hear Ryan Dancey write about the restrictions of the Star Wars IP. West End Games' President Scott Palter told me of a very different experience with the Star Wars IP when that company had their lisencing agreement with Lucasarts in the 80s and 90s. The Prequels surely changed the stance of the company, wanting WotC to promote the movies instead of focusing on the older stuff. I don't know how restrictive the Tolkien Estate would have been regarding a Middle-earth lisence to TSR in 1992, but I would guess looking at the deal given to ICE over MERP products would give us a clue?

-Havard
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Dread Delgath » Sun Sep 15, 2019 8:12 pm

1992 was a bad time for TSR to do anything 3rd party with POG in charge. The iron would have been hotter in the late 70's early 80's to move on a deal like this with the Tolkien Estate.
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Re: When TSR Passed On Tolkien

Post by Havard » Mon Sep 16, 2019 6:51 pm

Dread Delgath wrote:
Sun Sep 15, 2019 8:12 pm
1992 was a bad time for TSR to do anything 3rd party with POG in charge. The iron would have been hotter in the late 70's early 80's to move on a deal like this with the Tolkien Estate.
Williams was in charge of TSR between 1986-1997. Whatever she was like as a person back then and what business decisions she made in the late 1990s, she did run TSR as a successful company for a decade or so. But Williams was indeed the person who shut down the idea of making such a deal when it was viable.

It would have been nice if TSR and the Tolkien Estate could have made a deal in the early 1970s so TSR could keep terms like Hobbits, Ents and Balrogs in D&D.

Gygax' later insistence that he wasn't a fan of Lord of the Rings may have been colored by the fact that the Tolkien Estate sued TSR, but if he genuinely cared as little for Tolkien's works as he has expressed, I don't know if Gygax-era TSR would have been the best suited to take care of this RPG property? Then again, TSR creatives typically managed to make tons of quality material no matter who was in charge. :)

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